If your employer requires COVID-19 vaccines for its workforce, do you need to comply? The short answer is yes unless you qualify for an exception. The issue is still evolving, but at the moment, those exceptions fall mostly under health and religious reasons—and it only gets more complicated from there.
The federal government issued guidance on that answer back in December 2020, primarily with how an employment requirement could interact with Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) regulations, from the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) to Title VII of the Civil Rights Act.
Mandatory COVID-19 vaccines aren’t common, but it’s safe to assume that frontline and essential workers will be among the first to face the issue. Employers are generally able to put the requirement in place if they can prove that an unvaccinated worker poses “a direct threat to the health or safety of individuals in the workplace.”
Employers should conduct an individualized assessment of four factors in determining whether a direct threat exists: the duration of the risk; the nature and severity of the potential harm; the likelihood that the potential harm will occur; and the imminence of the potential harm. A conclusion that there is a direct threat would include a determination that an unvaccinated individual will expose others to the virus at the worksite. If an employer determines that an individual who cannot be vaccinated due to disability [or a sincerely held religious belief] poses a direct threat at the worksite, the employer cannot exclude the employee from the workplace—or take any other action—unless there is no way to provide a reasonable accommodation [such as performing the current position remotely] that would eliminate or reduce this risk so the unvaccinated employee does not pose a direct threat.
We found the following resources helpful but, again, it’s important to note that the rules could change:
- Start with the EEOC’s guidance on COVID-19 vaccinations, which is located in Section K. If you’re concerned about how pre-screening questions for vaccinations and other factors affect your rights, this is where to find it.
- Kiplinger offers a helpful Q&A on navigating the issue with your employer if your concerns fall under religious or medical accommodation categories (which, according to the article, might include pregnancy).
- AARP covers the EEOC guidance with clear, easy-to-follow advice. The article points out that exemptions are hard to get in at-will work states (like Texas) but also brings up the possibility that wearing extra personal protective equipment (PPE) might be enough accommodations to eliminate a “direct threat.”
- SHRM dives deeper into the reasonable accommodations that can be made. For instance, your employer should look at your job functions, whether there’s an alternative job available to you, and how your not being vaccinated affects work operations.
Whatever you do, be calm and level-headed when addressing the situation with your employer. Depending on their industry and changing regulations, they could face potential liabilities by not mandating vaccines, after all. Their effort to do so—whether they’re required to or not—is motivated by what they determine is best for their workers, customers, and community. Stand up for your rights if you’re in a protected class but understand that you may need to jump through some hoops to prove your exemption status.
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